When I came round I was in Hell. I was shouting and screaming. I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t feel my legs; my right arm was in intense pain, and I couldn’t move it, either, from the six hours of tight pulsating blood pressure control it had been under in the operating theatre.
The lights in the corridors were ferociously blinding and disorienting as I was led back, blurring and jolting, to my room. Faces in masks whirled above me clamouring in Japanese, and then, suddenly, incomprehensible, assailing my drugged, tampered brain, there was the nauseating and overwhelming smell of No 19 parfum assaulting my senses from all angles – foreign, unwelcome : like a block of pure unwanted evil.
Screaming to get it away from me, get that smell oh god I need water so badly my mouth is so dry what have I done I’m going to die, why have you put 19 everywhere (he hadn’t: it was discharging from my carefully saturated bathrobe that was lurking hidden in the hospital drawer and emanating fumes- entirely my fault), but it couldn’t possibly at all have been more wrong in that situation; it just smelled poisonous.
I was in hell. I didn’t know what I had been expecting, but I hadn’t been expecting this. To be so pitiably helpless like a deformed, newborn child. And for my ‘legs’ – packed in ice packs and bandages and machine compressors- to feel so lifeless.
I wanted to disappear. I was shuddering from the shock of it. I didn’t know what I wanted : except water. Water. Water. Water. That was all I could think about, only water, but they told me kindly, but firmly, that I wasn’t allowed any more fluids for another torturous four hours.
This, unless you suffer from the same thing that I do, you won’t quite realize the impact of. The intolerableness. The unacceptability. Nobody understands, actually, except perhaps one friend of mine who feels somewhat similarly, but being deprived of water at any one time is literally unbearable for me, as is any situation in which I am denied water for even a moment. It is a fully fledged phobia, the depths of which only now I am realizing.
When I heard, from someone who had undergone a similar operation, that in some cases, in some hospitals ( or perhaps this is just how it used to be, I don’t know), no food or drink is allowed twenty four hours before an operation, despite the fact that I was becoming unable to walk through lack of cartilage, I was seriously considering cancelling it. Because it was impossible. There was honestly no way that I could have done it.
Then, other friends who have also been in hospital told me that the usual procedure before a major operation was nil by mouth after midnight- still utterly unfathomable as a doable thing on my part, and something I could never have complied with, no matter the consequences. If I was risking death, so be it.
I drink water during the night whenever I wake up ( often). I have bottles in my bag, in the classroom, on the bus, beside me at all times, wherever I am. I am never at any time without it. I CAN’T be without it.
As you will have realized from reading this, my obsession, my dehydrophobia, if that’s the name for it – -is exactly that : an irrational phobia of not having constant access to water even when you are not dehydrated………and realizing that when you are in this situation you succumb to an accelerating sensation of dryness and fear.
(or is it possible that I died of thirst in a former life?… who knows )
In any case, as the operation date approached, water, rather than pain, was my biggest anxiety. To me this is natural, normal, instinctive, but I could find almost no information on similar people when I looked into it further online.
I was surprised. I would have presumed that far more people, water being so essential, so crucial to our existence and well being, would have had a similar obsession. The fear of desiccation . Of dehydration. Of death by thirst. So much more all-consuming and murderous than hunger.
Yet while many articles discussing phobias naturally list hydrophobia ( a physically- derived symptom of rabies ) and aquaphobia ( a terror of actually physically being in the water ), no one seems to have mentioned its direct opposite: people like me, water lovers, who are aquaphilic in the extreme.
I love swimming in the open sea more than almost anything. live in the bath. have no fear of drowning ( at least it’s in water) or of diving off rocks into waves. Heaven.
I love liquids, hydration, warm, tropical rains, rivers, lakes, just staring down into the water, like Narcissus, himself, who was drowned in that treacherous pool in the forest but transformed, thereafter, into that shy but powerfully perfumed flower.
Water is the opposite of stasis, of inertia: it signifies life and the movement of the blood in our veins, the rain bringing newness and the annihilation of dryness – it IS life, so having even the mere possibility of having water taken away from me at any time: forbidden, disallowed, but then also being physically unable to reach out for it, is thus, essentially, my worst fear realized.
It is a fear that I can usually quite easily keep a lid on though – no one needed to know about it, really, until now. Because unlike, say, phobia of exposure to a particular kind of creature or person; or a terror of public vomiting or flowers or buttons – all much more commonly recognized phobias, in fact, than my own fear – no one would really have ever known about my own formidable anxiety about this issue until now because obviously, no has prevented ever really tried to prevent me from having water.
But how do you ignore doctors’ orders, when presumably those very rules that are in place in the majority of health facilities are there to protect your health, even your life?
The night before the operation I was told that I could drink fluids until 6.30am and this was quite surprising and blissful news for me, even if there was still the time until the surgery at 9.15 to be considered ( yes, I realize that I could have called to find out all this vital information in advance, but I was planning on having bottles secreted away in case I had to flout the rules and I was paranoid they would then be keeping an extra eye on me to make sure that I didn’t………..)
I managed to remain relatively calm, knowing what was going to soon be happening to me, all things considered, and I didn’t really even drink that high a volume of water I don’t think, at least as far as I can now remember. For me, anyway.
The night before, I had had a Skype conversation with an old flame of mine, Christopher Green, a well known comic performer and resident performance artist at the Royal College Of Art in London where he works as the Singing Hynotherapist. He is fully qualified, and practices, but given our history ( a three day fling at Cambridge in 1991, all very poetic and passion in the daffodils ) he said it probably wasn’t wise to have a real hypnotherapy session over Skype; you need to be treated in person. The trust needed to go under that way requires the energy of person to person interaction, and it shouldn’t be someone you have been involved with.
It helped, though, certainly: the visualization he suggested, the breathing practice, but it wasn’t enough. Although I had read about the dangers of combining water and anaesthetic, my anxiety level, by 6.31 am, was such that I had no possibility internally of stopping all fluids; kept sipping water, even drinking it normally, swallowing quite a lot, right up until the dreaded time I found myself dead man walking into the operating theatre, where I was strapped to the gurney in the middle of the room, stared down at by the Japanese medical team, ready for them to begin cutting and sawing at my leg bones….but all I could think about, aside noting all the people, the machines, the sound of my heart beat on the monitor, the pattern on the dull, glassed, ceiling, was WATER, WATER, I just can’t stand not having it, I can’t wait for the anaesthetic please give it me, and and so in pity they finally let me rinse my mouth with a side gargle tray – though I took undisguised sips as I was desperate for it, it was necessary for me to have it, could not not just spit all of it out, and then RIGHT BEFORE, just before the actual moment of surrender and I went under I begged them for another.
And they let me have one more final drink before my lights went out.
But then I woke up – what was actually six hours later but what felt like immediacy, and the all consuming need for hydration was so potent that it overwhelmed ALL other considerations, including whether I lived or died. But it was denied me.
Those first four hours after the operation were the worst of my life so far: queasy, paralyzed, in pain, dying for water and just trying to get through each interminable hour ( I could only get the mouthwashes, but they still were some mental salve as I was going in and out of consciousness….) until I reached the magical hour of 8pm when I could resume having water again.
Going into hospital I had initially, as you know, settled on No 19. My underwear is scented with it, which I like, because I have been stuck in the same position in bed for six days, but that outrageous bathrobe drenched in the parfum, the one that made me feel so sick when I was coming round, is just too much. What the hell had I been thinking? Strong tasting food and overwhelming odours become like anathema.
In the first days after the Trauma, though, as I began to gather myself and feel more human, I noticed how nice the nurses, both female and male, who were giving me round the clock care, were smelling. But thismight just have been the contrast with my own foetid squalor in the bed – caused by the shroud I was wrapped in with hot heating apparatus during the surgery and what I was carried in on as they brought me to the bed, drenched in panic sweat which seeped into the bed itself; I was changed into other hospital clothes two days later but god, the smell……although I like my skin smell and don’t think on the whole I have a particularly pernicious body odour, in concentration, like that, sickly and perspiring at my most perilous I would say the ooze I was emitting was a something like a pungent melange of warm, wet digestive biscuits and dead dogs with a pinch of nutmeg.
As for my mouth…….parched, lying there wide open for six hours in dehydration, well I am sure I would have won Top Honours at the Bad Breath Awards 2017. Uueuurgh. That taste….. it’s as if the day when you know your exhalations weren’t at their freshest – you know, that smell – that exact, dreaded scent were changed from a cologne fraiche to a double strength extrait de parfum; viscous and arid; but you can’t do anything but lie there like a bandaged open sewer and accept it.
In contrast to all this vileness emanating from my brutalized and sutured, dehydrated self, then, the fact that the staff all smelled so fresh and fragrant was an immediate boon. Not perfumed, as such, although one nurse, smelling as Atlas cedary as Serge Lutens Feminite Du Bois, told me that her scent was from products she had got at an onsen, or hotspring – perhaps something floral and hinoki, but every time her hair is anywhere in my vicinity as she is changing a drip or inserting an intravenous, I feel more alive.
Even my physiotherapist, the lovely, tiny, Ms Iikura (god, getting made to try and stand up- even supported by Duncan and her the day after the operation- and get into the wheelchair, to go to the rehabilitation room,….Christ the agony), smells cute and fresh as a daisy. I can’t identify what she is wearing – no doubt the hospital doesn’t allow any perfumes, it must be toiletries, or shampoo, but the gentle sweet cleanness of her scent, that perfectly matches her personality, is a much needed accompaniment to the excruciating challenges of that room.
My tastes are different in here. I thought I would be sickened by the meals, but in fact the light, healthy and very balanced Japanese food is just what I feel like, even things I ordinarily don’t enjoy, such as seaweed. Strong food, snacks, coffee, all just seem nightmarish at this stage. I am sure I will tire of it at some point ( edit: I already have): the food is fresh and good to the point of saintliness, but in truth it’s exactly what I want. I have to feed the healing.
The same goes for my oils. Vetiver : no. So wrong. It just smells like exhaust engines and creosote. Frankincense : miserable, morose – horrible, actually, and ylang ylang just took me aback with its repellent, overfull yellow pink sweetness, and made me almost heave.
My Tasmanian lavender oil, however, was a godsend those first twenty four hours when I felt a regret that I have never before felt in this lifetime ( I just wanted to go back to how it was before…)
– a bright, purple, almost cassis -noted organically grown lavender that cleared the air of the room beautifully, changed it, and took away some of my worry. I could concentrate on that smell and imagine landscapes, feel less confined to my body.
It is predominantly citrus, though, that I have wanted and have been using all the time here. The nurses are either beguiled or disturbed by it but I just sprinkle some bergamot here, some lemon there, just on towels and tissues to brighten things up, on my tongue, on my chest ( last night the male night nurse obviously had bronchitis, was feverish although he claimed otherwise – I could feel his hot fingers though, when he gave me the antibiotic injection and I wasn’t taking any chances; these essential oils not only smell beautiful, but they are germ killers as well, and right now, there could be no better essences. Bergamot, in particular, just clears the air, it relaxes me, it enlivens me, it just smells like a big giant aura of green orange happiness.)
By chance Duncan, one point on the third day of my stay here, sorting out what we had brought with us in our bags and putting the room in order, just took out, at random, one of the perfume sample bottles I had brought along to review in case I found myself in such a mood one day and……rejoice ! it just seemed so perfect for that particular moment that, suddenly mood-altered, immediately I began spraying it in tiny amounts on different parts of my pyjamas: sunshined: respirited, and elated.
As the press release from this new ‘ethical perfumer’ says ( and no, I don’t usually take these things seriously either, nor have even the slightest expectations any more from reading the purple prosed verbiage spewed up by pen-chewing copywriters, but this sample just winged its way across the ocean to me via a friend, and I like to keep an open mind) – Sana Jardin Paris, a new perfume house prioritizing sustainability and fair trade of all the jasmine, orange blossom, neroli and citrus oils used in the perfume grown in Morocco, is apparently designed to just smell like pure yellow happiness and sunshine in a bottle.
And the thing is, IT DOES.
This could of course simply be because of my current situation. Things I normally like, I am finding I don’t. And vice versa. So it’s quite possible that my ecstatic reaction to this scent that only smells of the orange blossom tree on a hot blue afternoon and just took me away from this immediate environment to somewhere happy, where I could walk freely among the orange groves and just BE, is because of one of subjectively extreme experience, not intrinsic beauty.
Berber Blonde, a curious name for an orange blossom perfume but one I like, is all about the neroli and the orange blossom and nothing else, and I had in fact already been sampling on my skin before coming into hospital and already liked it. To me it just smells like beams of sunlight: zinging, new – so blindingly optimistic when you first unlock the bottle, the future seems so bright that you’ve got to wear shades.
Some, who like the softer orange blossoms, many of which I also quite like myself and have written about here on The Black Narcissus, such as Mademoiselle and Petit Guerlain; Divin Enfant, Penhaligons Castile, Lorenzo Villoresi’s Dilmun or the sweet and lovely Eau Des Minimes Cologne Of Love, will perhaps find Berber Blonde too illuminated and lucid, though it is never as sharp and strong as Lutens Fleurs D’Oranger, Gaultier’s Fragile, nor as citrussed and rasping as my own personal (and prior to this discovery, favourite) Annick Goutal’s Neroli cologne with its green and white on-the-bough realness.
No, Berber Blonde has a different, more psychologically lucent register.
You spray, you go; to a different place instantaneously, somewhere bright, and simple, and fragrant smelling;; just orange blossom buds and open flowers in some hot, imaginary place……..fresh, alive; breathing in sunlight, suspended above pools of bottomless clear blue water